Dozens of elderly South Koreans crossed over to North Korea on Monday August 20th to meet with relatives they have not seen since the Korean War split the country in half.
The event is scheduled to take place all week at North Korea's Diamond Mountain resort. The meeting between separated families comes as the rival Koreas boost reconciliation efforts. It all forms part of a diplomatic push to resolve a standoff over North Korea's drive for a nuclear weapons programme that can reliably target the continental United States.
The reunions are heart-wrenching. Those participating in the meetings are elderly, hoping to see long lost relatives before they die. Many families were split apart during the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a ceasefire. The war did not end with a peace treaty, which means North and South Korea are technically still at war with each other.
Nearly 90 elderly South Koreans and their family members were bused to the North Korean Diamond Mountain resort. Earlier in the day, the group disembarked from the buses in order to enter the South Korean immigration office located in the eastern border town of Goseong.
August 20th is the start of a three-day reunion planned for the families. There will be a second round of reunions, running from Friday August 24th to Sunday 26th, which will include some 300 South Koreans, according to Seoul's Unification Ministry.
Nearly 20,000 people have participated in 20 rounds of face-to-face reunions since 2000. Another 3,700 exchanged video messages with their North Korean relatives under a short-lived communication programme from 2005 to 2007. No one has received a second chance to see their relatives.
Many of the South Korean participants are war refugees who were born in North Korea. They will be meeting their siblings, or the infant children they left behind, many of them now in their 70s.
Park Hong-seo is an 88 year-old Korean War veteran from the southern city of Daegu. He has often wondered if he ever met his older brother on the battlefield.
After graduating from Seoul University, Park's brother settled in the North Korean coastal town of Wonsan as a dentist in 1946. A co-worker told Park that when war broke out his brother refused to leave the North because he had a family. He was also a surgeon in the North Korean army at the time. Park fought for the South as a student soldier. He was among the allied troops who took over Wonsan in October 1950. Park learned that his brother died in 1984 and will meet his North Korean nephew and niece, who are 74 and 69, respectively. "I want to ask them what his dying wish was and what he said about me," said Park. "I wonder whether there's a chance he saw me when I was in Wonsan."
According to AP, the last reunions were held some three years ago. Since then, the North has tested three nuclear weapons and multiple missiles. It is believed the missiles have the potential to reach the continental United States. Most recently however, it would seem the North has taken a more democratic tack, with talks between leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. in April this year, the two leaders agreed to resume the reunions.
South Korea feels the separation of families has been the largest humanitarian issue created by the war. The ministry estimates there are currently about 600,000 to 700,000 South Koreans with immediate or extended family relatives in North Korea. To date, the North has rejected calls from the South to bring about more reunions. Analysts say North Korea sees the reunions as an important bargaining chip. The North’s leadership does not want to expand the reunions because it exposes North Koreans to the outside world. South Korea, on the other hand, chooses participants in the reunions through a lottery system. It is rumoured that the North chooses participants based on loyalty to the country’s leadership.